A filthy, glorious night of soccer

I wore my boots to work Monday because of the heavy rain falling at sunrise and guessing I would be traipsing through thick mud by Monday night when the weather was supposed to clear. I was right.
I had made the drive to Nettleton to meet up with Kayla Long and Josh Warren to help coach the Vardaman Rams in their soccer matches against the home Tigers. I couldn’t recall ever having been to Nettleton before. I’m familiar with the town because my friend Brandon Presley, who now serves as Public Service Commissioner, was a long time mayor there, but this was my first visit. I cut through Houlka, Okolona and made my way to downtown and the high school, parking right beside the Calhoun County school bus that Valerie Parker said coughed and sputtered all the way from Vardaman.

Joel McNeece

We were laughing because the last time she drove a school bus for me to a soccer game I was sitting in the front row and as we turned a corner the air conditioner above my head dumped at least a gallon of water on me. Fortunately, it was a lot warmer that day than it was Monday night.
The cool crisp air felt extra biting walking through big puddles of water and thick sloshy mud.

I had barely made it to the sideline when a couple of the Rams came up to me and said, “We’re going to do it tonight, coach.”
“It” is the playoffs. Something we desperately wanted last season in the Rams’ inaugural soccer year. They would have qualified for the playoffs last year had they been eligible, but we had to sit at home and watch teams we had beaten compete until this year.

All we needed Monday night was a win at Nettleton to clinch a spot. That had been set up by a strong performance Saturday at TCPS in much better conditions.
But first up Monday was the girls’ game, who aren’t quite ready for a playoff push but are showing great progress in their first season of game action.
We weren’t too far into the game when Veronica Maldonado made what would have been a great sliding tackle, but she kept sliding on the mud another 10 yards beyond the ball and the Lady Tiger forward.
I recalled similar games I had played in years ago, when your cleats just bog down in the mud to at some point you run right out of one. Then you have to cram a muddy sock back into that cleat.

That’s the thing about soccer, similar to football, lightning is really the only weather that stops it. These kids have played when it was near 10 degrees, in pouring rain, when it was so humid you were crying for a raindrop, and loved every second of it.
By game’s end, everybody had gotten a taste of the mud and the field conditions caused some strategic concerns heading into the important boys’ game. I was focused on the task at hand, but at the same time recognized how thankful I was to not be riding home to Calhoun on that school bus with all those mud-caked players.

Josh and I laid out our game plan and it wasn’t too far into the game our guys were executing it to near perfection – a credit to their talent more than our coaching.
Junior Rios made a beautiful steal near midfield, delivered a sharp pass to Miguel Vazquez, who utilized his great skill to dart around an approaching defender and feed our striker, Ismael Rios, as he raced into the opening and promptly drilled the ball past the goalkeeper into the back of the net.

If you haven’t seen Ismael Rios kick a soccer ball, you’ve missed a treat. He has a cannon for a left foot that allows him to score goals anytime he crosses midfield. On this occasion he used his great touch, but twice more in the game he unleashed that left foot rocket. You can’t coach that.
Josh and I just nodded and let out a deep breath. We were on our game. It would end 7-1.

Everyone did their job. All 17 dressed out on this night contributed to the win – from seventh grader Nelly Soto to senior goalkeeper Eric Solis.
It was all hugs, big smiles and “we did it,” after the game.
“Enjoy it tonight, but we’ve got more important soccer still ahead of us,” Josh and I told them as we walked toward the bus.

Just for a moment, I wanted to get on that bus and ride back with them to continue enjoying the accomplishment of qualifying for the playoffs on our first opportunity. Then I looked at my boots and all those muddy uniforms and decided my Jeep was the better option. There will be more nights like this. I can’t wait.